AUGUSTA – The woeful state budget cast a shadow over a gubernatorial forum Wednesday sponsored by the Disability Rights Center and other disability rights groups in the capital.

Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler and Shawn Moody each took a turn to answer questions from the audience of about 100 people at the Hill Mansion.

All five candidates on the November ballot were invited, but Republican Paul LePage, the front-runner in the latest polls, and independent Kevin Scott did not attend the afternoon event. Sara Squires of the Disability Rights Center was the forum’s moderator.

During their presentations, all three candidates touched on themes of setting priorities in a tough budget environment and ensuring that affected groups have a “seat at the table” when policies are decided.

“I won’t make promises that I don’t know I can keep,” Cutler said.

He said that while other candidates were pledging to increase funding in certain areas or protect other areas from cuts, he has refused to do so.

“I see us stumbling into a financial abyss that will make it impossible for us to be the kinds of people and to do the kinds of things that we all want to do, and that really defines Maine’s civic culture,” he said. “We need to grow the pot. We’ve been living with a shrinking pot for a decade.”

Cutler said he would take a new approach to state budgeting. In addition to starting at zero and building the budget from the bottom up, he said, re-evaluating tax breaks to seek additional revenue would be part of the process.

“They are called tax expenditures because they are just like spending money. A dollar that’s forgone in income is like a dollar in spending. And there’s $3.5 billion a year in tax expenditures in the state of Maine,” he said.

Mitchell, Maine’s Senate president, said she has a track record of working with the community to ensure that the effects of budget cuts are not disproportionate.

“I walk the walk, I don’t just talk the talk,” she said. “You have lots of choices, but the important thing to know is, who can you trust to get the job done for you?”

The veteran lawmaker pointed out that tough decisions will have to be made because of the economy, but she touted her past leadership as evidence she would be the best choice for the future.

“Over all my opportunities to serve in the Maine Legislature or as a selectwoman in Vassalboro, I have never found the silver bullet to deal with the mental health problems,” Mitchell said. “We do have some systems in Maine that do work. But far too many people are in the street out here in Augusta or in the emergency room. I do not want to retire from public service without a better solution than we now have.”

Moody said the prospect of more state budget cuts to programs that serve disabled Mainers is “sobering and real.”

“It’s all about priorities, and you can’t please everyone,” he said. “I don’t want to mislead you. But when someone is disabled, that’s what we pay taxes for. We need those safety nets. You don’t kick someone when they are down.”

Moody said the key to a strong safety net is a strong economy.

“We’ve got to go back to empowering the people for what we can do and have government stop getting in the way of progress, forward momentum,” he said. “We’ve kind of lost our way a bit — we’ve become a nation of consumers. We need to be a country built on being a nation of producers. And Maine can lead that charge. We’ve got it all right here. We’ve got to get government out of the way of private enterprise so they can expand, and a vibrant economy is a vibrant society.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

rmetzler@centralmaine.com